Members of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum sign the protocol sharing agreement in 2017. Credit: USCG
The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) Polar Code went into effect on 1 January 2017 for all new vessels built on or after that date. As of 1 January 2018, it applies to all existing vessels as well, expanding the scope of the regulation as Arctic activity continues to grow.
Adopted by the IMO in 2014 and 2015, the requirements contained in the Polar Code were added to existing IMO conventions, Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), as a recognition of the hazards and conditions unique to polar waters, as well as an expected increase in traffic in the Arctic and Antarctic.
The additional hazards that must be considered when navigating through polar waters include navigation in ice and low temperatures, high-latitude communications and navigation, remoteness from response resources, and limited hydrographic charting.
The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) was also amended to include enhanced training requirements for personnel employed on ships operating in polar waters. Those amendments, slated to come into force on 1 July, require that masters, chief mates, and officers in charge of a navigational watch on ships operating in polar waters hold a certificate in basic training for ships operating in those regions, after they complete approved training courses and meet the specified standard of competence, according to a class society brief.
One of the requirements for ships subject to the Polar Code is that they carry a Polar Ship Certificate pursuant to SOLAS, proving that the vessel has met the requirements of the convention. In the United States, the US Coast Guard (USCG) issued a final rule, which went into effect in October 2017, requiring all new and existing vessels to carry the certificate as of 1 January 2018.
This was necessary to allow the USCG to add the certificate to the list of certificates required by SOLAS, and “allows the USCG to authorise recognised classification societies to issue the Polar Ship Certificate on the USCG’s behalf” under federal regulations, the agency stated in September 2017.
The USCG also told shipowners late last year that foreign-flagged vessels, certified in accordance with SOLAS and operating in polar waters, are also required to carry a Polar Ship Certificate. “However, their certificates will be issued by the vessel’s flag state, or a person or an organisation authorised by that flag state to issue the certificate. The USCG will examine foreign-flagged vessels during port state control boardings to ensure that they are properly certificated,” the USCG stated.
“The Polar Code is a game-changer for a number of reasons: it improves the safety of seafarers; it encourages a safer approach to operating in important wilderness areas; and it helps protect the living environments of indigenous peoples,” said Trevor Maynard, head of innovation at Lloyd’s of London.
Tom Boardley, executive vice-president and global head of corporate and external affairs at Lloyd’s Register (LR), commented, “The Polar Code brings a well-needed baseline of international requirements for shipping in all polar regions and is different to most existing regulation because it is, in part, goal-based rather than prescriptive.”
The code addresses several areas of safety and environmental risk associated with increasing vessel transits through waters north of 60° north latitude and south of 60° south latitude, where the number of ice-free days is increasing, allowing for shorter transit times than traditional routes and significantly reduced fuel and operational costs.
Most of the increase is expected along routes through the Arctic, where Russia plans to increase exports of its oil and gas resources. Declining ice along the Northwest Passage, the Northern Sea Route (NSR), and the Transpolar Sea Route makes it easier to access those resources, and for ships to cut journey times between Pacific and Atlantic ports.
Sovcomflot tanker Christophe de Margerie broke records in August 2017 when it travelled through the NSR in a record six days, en route from Norway to South Korea with a load of liquefied natural gas.
The total voyage time from Hammerfest in Norway to the port of Boryeong in South Korea was 19 days, roughly 30% faster than the traditional southern route through the Suez Canal.
The USCG and its counterparts in other Arctic nations are going beyond the Polar Code to reduce risks associated with increased vessel activity in the region.
In December 2017, USCG Director of Marine Transportation and Senior Arctic Policy Adviser Michael Emerson told attendees at a forum on Arctic challenges that increased accessibility to US Arctic waters, and the subsequent increases in illegal, unregulated, and unreported maritime activity in the region, “have necessitated an expansion of maritime domain awareness, operational presence, and international engagement”.
One of the ways his agency is addressing Arctic challenges is through a proposal with the Russian Federation for voluntary two-way routeing in the Bering Strait and Bering Sea.
“The recommended routes help ships avoid the numerous shoals, reefs, and islands outside the routes, reducing the potential for marine casualties and environmental disasters, and avoiding areas that would adversely impact subsistence hunting and gathering of the indigenous people in the region,” the USCG said.
Emerson also emphasised the ongoing recapitalising of USCG ice-cutter assets, as well as continued development of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum to support environmental safeguards in the region.
Polar Code environmental protections will also be highlighted at the 72nd meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee in April. A discussion on measures to reduce risks from the use of heavy fuel oil by ships in Arctic waters has been added to the agenda.
Trump authorises upgrade of US icebreaker fleet
In December 2017, US President Donald Trump signed a law that authorises the modernisation of the US icebreaking fleet in an effort to meet growing demand for Arctic escort capacity in the wake of increasing commercial activity in the region.
The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act authorises the government to purchase one polar-class heavy icebreaker. Given that the United States’ icebreaking fleet has been depleted from seven 40 years ago down to a current fleet of just two, the authorisation is significant.
“With rapidly increasing commercial activity and sea traffic in the Arctic and Russia’s alarming military build-up, America can no long afford to neglect this area of the globe,” commented Dan Sullivan, US senator from Alaska.
The two operational polar icebreakers are the heavy-duty Polar Star and the medium-duty Healy, which is used for scientific research.
By comparison, Russia has 41 governmental and privately owned conventional and nuclear icebreakers – the largest icebreaking fleet in the world. It has 11 additional icebreakers in development, including three new nuclear-powered vessels to be completed by 2020. Some Russian officials believe even their fleet is not enough to meet demand for vessel escorts, given the rapid rise of shipping volumes in the Arctic.
USCG Commandant Paul Zukunft said that “increased human activity is filling the space once occupied by Arctic ice”, and that the United States is aiming to get its new heavy icebreaker built by 2022, with the ultimate goal of a fleet of six new icebreakers “to provide year-round access and support all US missions in the polar regions”.